31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

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Three excuses for the inexcusable delay:
1) It’s easier to be doing this when unemployed than when employed.
2) The Philadelphia Film Festival.
3) These films are blowing my mind. I am prepared to say that women on average make more consistently good and more provocative films than men. There’s so much I want to put down in these reviews, I can’t do it so quickly. So I will be extending this project into November. Also, while I promise you will hear my thoughts on all 31 films, the order I will publish them in will correspond not with my film schedule but rather with my whims and preferences.

Fame did not change Chantal Akerman. She got the attention of cinephiles everywhere with her radical experiment Jeanne Dielman (1975). She could have stepped up her game, scored a higher budget, made something even more ambitious—a dream project, perhaps. Nope. Her following work of fiction, Les Rendezvous d’Anna (’78), is simpler, not as challenging as, yet somehow more austere than Dielman—notwithstanding the name continental cast, and the themes of what it means to achieve fame as an artist, and what comes after. Anna Silver (Aurore Clément) is a filmmaker touring her latest film across Western Europe. She stays in well-off hotels, gives press interviews, has little trouble bringing men to her bed, and has friends, family and colleagues rather eager to have her as company. There is little doubt she is a thinly veiled Akerman promoting Dielman.

But there is no glitz to Anna’s fame. At 28, Akerman had already developed her signature motifs: immense long takes, voids of silence and of monologue, as few characters as possible, a Spartan narrative thread consumed by quotidian tasks and prolix travelling, a deep and genuine concern with base physical needs (food, shelter, sex, etc.), and an effectively stealthy feminism. We have a few scenes with a few actors to establish the exposition that Anna is an auteur of some esteem. That’s it. There is no ostentation to Anna’s/Akerman’s place in the world of cinema. There are merely tedious sojourns in the posh hotels and restaurants of urban Germany, Belgium and France, punctuated by tedious train and car rides, which it is not uncommon for Anna to spend sitting or lying around, eating, passively listening to whatever the hell the person she’s with is saying, sleeping, staving off sleep, waiting for something—anything—to happen. This is a filmmaker committed to her artistic vision, giving minimal thought to the demands that fame may place on it.

I know of no other filmmaker who depicts waiting—as a process, as a discipline, as an existential state—as well as Akerman. It’s been said and written that she impels her audience to feel time. I half-agree. Dielman clocks in at 3 1/3 hours, yet I can’t say I feel that much time go by as I watch that film (one of my all-time favorites), as time is folded in and made watchable by the domestic chores that set Dielman’s routine, and anyone who’s been through childhood can relate to some degree of necessary domestic duty. In her forty-five-year career, Akerman never made another film even close to that running time. Anna is a standard two hours, yet it is much more languid because of the energy that Anna expends on waiting—waiting to arrive at her destination, waiting for the next errand in her itinerary, waiting for whoever she’s with to shut the fuck up already. As the scope of her filmic projects contracts back to normal, Akerman demands reciprocity and asks her viewers to increase their patience. The shorter the film, the less that happens, of course. Granted, the soliloquies of the peripheral figures that Anna encounters on her travels are not as memorable nor as provocative as those few present in Dielman and in this auteur’s other early masterpiece Je Tu Il Elle. So Anna is a notch down from those efforts—and it is not surprising that critics expecting a match of or an improvement on Dielman’s galvanism (unlikely) were disappointed. The film’s thematic core nonetheless remains valid and poignant. The cult success of one project and the good graces of critics do not, nor should they, assuage Anna/Akerman of the burden of creating more and at-least-as-good art, of staying truthful to one’s aesthetic instincts, and of taking inspiration from real life—even when that may entail listening to someone in your proximity spin a near-insufferable yarn on family troubles and toxic masculinity.

Perhaps I ought to write that I know of no filmmaker who handles time and temporality—and, by extension, space and environment—as well as Akerman, not least for her acute understanding of making and viewing cinema as a time-consuming process, a perpetual self-enhancing feedback loop. That is a more confident statement. Watching her films on Hulu, lights off, snuggled up in my easy chair with laptop and headphones, I find it effortless to plunge into her intimate universe of narrow train corridors squeezed between windows and berths, of familiar hotel rooms and flats providing serene urban views and almost all needed amenities, of train stations and cars cutting modern forms and sharp neon æthers through dusky autobahns of steel and tarmac. (Jean Penzer is the cameraman responsible for this.) The ubiquity of windows and the areas observed beyond them steers us towards a meta-filmic commentary. Anna/Akerman here is the filmmaker as audience, seeing and hearing for ideas and signs of a new story to transmit through her calculated vessel-like self to the cineaste public.

Further, Anna’s/Akerman’s passive, quasi-gendered, ironic silence—comparable to Liv Ullmann’s selectively mute actress in Persona—points to the artist’s struggle to speak through film, or better yet to speak beyond and outside of film. If film is Anna’s/Akerman’s main means of subsistence and communication (which it is), then what does it say about ourselves and our increasingly tech-obsessed and tech-dependent society if we can only live and talk through technological media and membranes? To what extent are they a protective raincoat shielding us from our insecurities? Fame and privilege, travel and sightseeing have not alleviated Anna of her steely interiority—which the film adroitly reflects—and Clément’s enigmatic submission to the top-down wheel-spinning she is subjected to, by people and place alike, is a fitting complement for Akerman, a vulnerable and fearless artist who appears nude and has sex with man and woman in Je Tu Il Elle. The great final scene shows Anna at home, in bed, trying and failing to relax, listening to an answering machine full of friends and colleagues demanding further travel plans. Forever she will face down an audience full of wannabe storytellers who want her to tell the stories they want to be told—perhaps their stories—as opposed to her stories. For her and Akerman, there is no escape from the house of cinema. Ultimately, though, it is Akerman who has decided what stories to tell, and how she will tell them.

(I almost take it as a sign of approval from God—for this 31 Days of Female Cinema project, that is—that without realizing it, I slated myself to watch this—and watched it—on October 5, the first anniversary of Akerman’s death by suicide. She was a great auteur, one of The Greats, and I am only more eager to explore her back catalogue. That said, my advice for Akerman virgins is to start with Dielman, and don’t be intimidated by the running time.)

Grade: B+

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31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Five: “Les Rendezvous d’Anna”, A Sophomore Slump—Yet Also A Deliberate One

31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

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My thoughts on Monsoon Wedding are imminent. I’d like to tell you about this film first.

For most LGBTQ persons today and before, the processes of coming of age and coming out are one and the same. Our current educational paradigm gives disproportionate representation to heterosexuals and straight romances (among other dominating demographics) insofar as to make the very concept of homosexuality an unknown-unknown for most children—so that if a same-sex attraction arises in puberty and post-, it comes as a shock, and seems like a total anomaly. “I thought I was the only one,” is a common refrain in the community. I connect with this because my Asperger’s made me gullible to teachers who associated teenage sex with STDs, pregnancies and general pauperism. I kid you not: I thought I was the only one who masturbated. Literally. The only one. So while most of my peers were either calling bullshit on the system and going their own way (more mature) or rebelling against authority out of spite (less mature), I was only starting to get in touch with myself as a sexual being, just as most homosexuals have to go through an M.O. to get in touch with themselves as homosexual beings. This is why I think I feel particularly strongly about justice and equality for LGBTQ persons. (When I first learned about what homosexuality was, I took for granted that gay men and lesbians could get married anyplace just like straight folks. I did not grasp the revolutionary quality of same-sex marriage until years later.) Yet, it is not enough for us to merely coagulate fictional stories with gay, bi and trans characters. We must give them agency and make them as enigmatic and morally complicated as the best-drawn straight characters—because, of course, they don’t have to be nice for straight audiences—without falling for the stereotypes with which we’ve been conditioned. We must normalize homosexuality so it does not have to be foregrounded, so that it could in some cases be for granted.

Because its two principal characters are lesbian lovers, The Summer of Sangailé has been billed as a primarily lesbian film, and as a weaker Baltic variation on Blue is the Warmest Color. Both labels are unfair. For one, the comparison to Blue is off. Sangailé is half the running time, and where Blue’s camera was handheld and roving, Sangailé is told in the longish, demure, delicately constructed static shots that have become standard in European cinema in the age of Haneke. Sangailé is also the more elliptical film—and, in that way, maybe even the more ambitious and experimental—to the extent that I am not ready to declare that the title character is learning about her lesbianism for the first time during this story. I think the odds are greater that she is settled on being Sapphic, and is merely encountering her first serious adult romance—with a girl selling raffle tickets at an air show. Early on, we see a POV shot of Sangailé (Julija Steponaityte) checking out a girl’s derriere as she strips to swimwear. She later spots said girl humping a guy in the grass, and from her poker face, we get an aura of…well, it’s so nuanced, it’s anyone’s guess. Disappointment at getting interested in yet another girl who turned out straight? Desire for the type of genital pleasure that straight people seem to obtain so much more easily? I’d bet on both. She does have sex with a guy, in the back of a car—but there, a POV shot implies that she derives more rapturous pleasure from the electricity flooding her from the nearby transmission tower than from the penis. (Also, memo to my fellow straights: sexuality is much more protean than you know. I’ve known lesbians who’ve had sex with men, and who are adamantly not bisexual. Because really, what is a penis to a woman but a dildo with a pulse?) The scene of her breakup from him is a smash cut to the same electricity station. She says, “No hard feelings.” He says, “See you,” gets in his car, and drives off bitter, leaving her with her bicycle. It’s so quick, you know it before you register it.

The elisions and caesurae that muddy Sangailé’s sexuality refocus the film on what turns out as its central story. Sangailé has an inclination to become a stunt pilot, but she has two things impeding that: vertigo, and a faint suicidal tendency—she’s self-alienated, estranged from her parents in their own home, and she has a habit of cutting her arms. What makes this film arresting is how those two conflicts play off each other as opposed to how they obstruct her career aspirations. Does she merely want to overcome vertigo so that she can die the epic plane crash death? Can she trust herself to go up into the air without wanting to crash? Is the vertigo a survival instinct that she depends on to live—a contrast to her cutting that brings the life force out from the death force cocoon? Alanté Kavaïte’s direction, Dominique Colin’s camera work, and Joëlle Hache’s editing blend with nary a seam to create startling motifs and counterpoints that reflect Sangailé’s turbulent inner world. Pensive crane shots looking down on urban landscapes from the airplane’s vantage point mirror awestruck angles on high houses, buildings and trees. The former tends towards dizziness, the latter towards stability; Sangailé’s ideal life in the skies remains infected by gnawing acrophobia as the earth remains secure. She must work her way up. Her bedroom is the top loft of her house, her bed perched against the railing over the stairs in an act of Mithridatic defiance. The flat of her art photographer girlfriend Austé (Aisté Dirziüté) is on the top story of her complex. These narrative choices are deliberate; the film’s sense of environment is acute and precise. Where Sangailé is not yet ready to board the plane, cranes and bridges and towers of zigzagging steel beams give her opportunity to practice, while swirls of flower buds and cupcake icing and tulle skirts keep her reminded of the smoke plumes emitted in a barrel roll.

This is an auspicious debut for Kavaité and for all involved, and a criminally underrated one. The critics’ maligning of it as mediocre in the face of the Blue behemoth is mistaken, and I suspect it comes from the notion that if the story were a straight and sterile romance, it wouldn’t receive half the film festival attention it did. (The most grabbing aspect of the film, to me, is that it’s Lithuanian. What do you know about Lithuanian cinema?) A straight story would be a different story. Sangailé and Austé’s romance is organic and invigorating; the sex they have is plausible and filmed purely to convey the rare peace Sangailé gains through it; and where a lesser filmmaker would have tritely paralleled Sangailé’s sexual awakening with her overcoming her vertigo, Kavaité perceives the two as separate if linked. One develops faster than the other. Her falling in love is a stepping stone, if anything, to her being able to fly a plane. This makes for a character with more dimensions. To her, Austé is served as a fascinating foil: a teen-at-heart steeped in fastidious chic, her apartment decked with fabrics, fur, miniatures, mirrors, fashions that she has Sangailé model, and a turntable that acts as a pivot for one of the film’s most evocative shots—where Sangailé’s living space and personality are austere, bare-boned, dry, yet refined and pragmatic. Does Austé help Sangailé realize her potential as a stunt pilot, as the love interest is wont to do in films such as these? Yes, you can count on that—not in the clichéd ways you’d expect to the genre, but rather in unique and uncanny ways that fit Austé’s character, and that don’t always succeed. (Watch her smart, unsentimental reaction to Sangailé’s cutting habit.) This is not a mill-product Sapphic paperback; this is a keen film rich with detail, subtlety and texture. Its best shot—a cloudy sky, which is actually its reflection in a pond—is its most quintessential. Watch this film with care.

Grade: A

31 Days of Cinema 2.0, Day Two: “The Summer of Sangailé”, A Love Letter from Lithuania

31 Days of Cinema 2.0: Women Filmmakers

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At some point, every living film buff needs to sit down and ask him or herself a question: How many women filmmakers can I name off the top of my head, right now? How many films by those women filmmakers have I seen? Of the films I’ve seen, how many pass the Bechdel test, or the Mako Mori test? Enough films? Replace “women” with some other demographic—people of color, LGBTQIA, neuro-atypical—and the questions become even harder, if still possible, to answer. If you click the white-on-steel-blue “W” below the banner that spells out this blog’s name, you’ll be linked to my bio page. (If someone could get in touch and tell me how to turn that “W” into “About [Me]”, which I know is doable, that’d be great. Bio pages shouldn’t have to be goddamn Easter eggs.) I’ve included on that page, for your interest, my current twenty all-time favorite films. A whopping two of them are directed by women. Two. I need to do something about that. So I’m going to.

Last year July, my 31 Days of Cinema challenge got this blog its highest readership yet. This January, I did the same thing with 31 other films in private, without publicizing it online, to see if lightning could strike twice. It did, and I discovered another slew of masterpieces. This October, I’m doing it again, but this time with a theme. Whereas in the previous challenges I made sure I watched one female auteur a week, this month, all of the films will be female-directed. (I’m permitting two co-directed by men.) It’s a curious time to be embarking on something like this. Chances are, this month will build up to America electing its first female president—either that, or we’re giving the nuclear codes to one of the most craven misogynistic bastards in all of American politics. (And a likely amphetamine abuser.) The feminism in the air is propulsive. I polled my Facebook friends to see which project they’d be more interested in: 31 Days of Female-Directed Cinema, or 31 Days of Horror, of course leading up to Halloween. I guessed the wantonness of watching thirty-one horror films consecutively would gain much morbid curiosity. I was wrong: Women received twice as many votes. Democracy in action. So be it.

I compiled my list with rules similar to my prior 31 Days effort: all major continental regions of the world must be represented; all decades since the ’60s must be represented; no country gets more than one film, exceptions allowed for international co-productions; and I must be on my first full viewing of every film. The difficulty I encountered in curating these films was massive, not least because it was twofold. First, I had to do an inordinate amount of research to learn about enough female filmmakers to give me the breadth and diversity that I wanted; and second, I had to narrow down the wealth of discoveries I’d made to a digestible collection of two and a half dozen plus one. And I had to double-check that they were all handily available—read: online. Even now when I’m committing to this, I’m doing so with some trepidation, as any day now, all films being streamed online by the Criterion Collection (without whom such a project would be incomprehensible) will be leaving Hulu and heading to their own domain, a site called Filmstruck that remains shrouded in secrecy. So sometime during what is sure to be a curious and volatile month in more ways than one, this frugal film critic might have to get a new premium subscription. Okay, time to shut up. On with the films:

Oct. 1: Monsoon Wedding (2001, dir. Mira Nair, India)
In with a bang!

Oct. 2: Summer of Sangailé (2015, dir. Alanté Kavaïté, Lithuania)
The Lithuanian Blue is the Warmest Color, or so I’ve read. The critical consensus is that it’s weaker, but right now, I’m very much impelled to curve the critics’ ratings, given the implicit bias against women. Also, this is the first film I’ve heard of to come out of freaking Lithuania!

Oct. 3: An Angel at My Table (1990, dir. Jane Campion, New Zealand)
Campion, best known for The Piano, is probably the most famous filmmaker to emerge from the first nation to give women the right to vote. (There’s also Niki Caro.) This is an epic biopic of Kiwi literary titan Janet Frame, and boasts a pre-Shallow Grave Kerry Fox.

Oct. 4: The Night of Truth (2004, dir. Fanta Régina Nacro, Burkina Faso)
I wrote last year that African cinema is underdeveloped. I was gravely mistaken: turns out, Nigeria’s Lollywood produces enough artistic output to rival the two major film industries that rhyme with it; and Egypt, Senegal and South Africa possess some of the world’s most vibrant filmic voices. The channels by which African cinema may reach the West—surely, those are underdeveloped. And African women’s cinema? Grossly underdeveloped. You can imagine my joy when I found this film online—not to mention, when I found a second African women’s film just as readily watchable.

Oct. 5: Les Rendezvous d’Anna (1978, dir. Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
No way in hell this list is complete without an Akerman. No way.

Oct. 6: The Lesson (2014, dir. Kristina Grozeva [with Petar Valcharov], Bulgaria)
Freaking BULGARIA!

Oct. 7: Ascent (1977, dir. Larisa Shepitko, Russia)
Classic. Shepitko was the wife of Elem Klimov, whose Come and See I currently rank as the greatest war film. If women make better filmmakers, will this outstrip even that? (Maybe you can tell by now I’m trying to get all the Hulu/Criterion picks out of the way early.)

Oct. 8: Joan of Arc of Mongolia (1989, dir. Ulrike Ottinger, Germany/France)
Ottinger’s dialogue-less Ticket of No Return (’79) comes championed by none other than Richard Linklater, and would have made this list were it not for another German film I’m dying to see. This film, an epic feminist-fantasy-comedy-history mishmash, looks intriguingly batshit. Notably, this was Delphine Seyrig’s final film.

Oct. 9: Boys Don’t Cry (1999, dir. Kimberly Peirce, U.S.)
Hilary Swank. ‘Nuff said.

Oct. 10: Sepet (2004, dir. Yasmin Ahmad, Malaysia)
MALAYSIA!

Oct. 11: Vagabond (1984, dir. Agnès Varda, France)
I consider Varda as mandatory for this list as Akerman. How fortunate that as I write this, Reverse Shot—one of my go-to film websites—is doing a retrospective on her work.

Oct. 12: Zero Motivation (2014, dir. Talya Lavie, Israel)
By most accounts, the Israeli woman’s answer to Zero for Conduct. Huge box office success in its homeland. Seriously looking forward to this one.

Oct. 13: The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975, Margarethe von Trotta [with Volker Schlöndorff], Germany)
Based on, and filmed in tandem with the writing of, the novel by Heinrich Böll, one of the few novels that I’ve read in one day, and one of the few novels to have become even timelier in the Internet age.

Oct. 14: In Darkness (2011, dir. Agnieszka Holland, Poland)
Holland is another mandatory one. This is a true Holocaust-set story about a band of Polish Jews whose plan to survive involves hiding in the sewer.

Oct. 15: After the Wedding (2006, dir. Susanne Bier, Denmark)
Confession: I have a weakness for weddings. Bier, also known for Brothers and In a Better World (an Oscar-winner, albeit a weak one, from what I’ve heard), is Denmark’s most famous female auteur, her biggest competition being Dogme 95 icon Lone Scherfig.

Oct. 16: The Silences of the Palace (1994, dir. Moufida Tlatli, Tunisia)
The Middle East’s first major female cinematic voice.

Oct. 17: Sugar Cane Alley (1983, dir. Euzhan Palcy, Martinique)
MARTINIQUE!!! Fun fact: Palcy made a killing in Hollywood with her adaptation of Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season, which makes her the only woman to have ever directed Marlon Brando.

Oct. 18: Loving Couples (1964, dir. Mai Zetterling, Sweden)
The earliest film I could find before collapsing down the rabbit hole of Ida Lupino, Dorothy Arzner, Maya Deren, and a certain Nazi asshat named Leni Riefenstahl.

Oct. 19: Innocence (2004, dir. Lucile Hadzihalilovic, France/Belgium)
She’s married to Gaspar Noé. So of course, the title is bullshit. Bonus: pre-fame Marion Cotillard.

Oct. 20: XXY (2007, dir. Lucía Puenzo, Argentina)
Puenzo is the leading Argentine woman filmmaker after Lucrecia Martel—whose La Ciénaga was the worst film I watched in last year’s challenge, so there’s no way I’m going back to her just yet. This is the only major film I know of about hermaphroditism. (It must be said that Netflix’s current thumbnail image for this film is triggering, and—as a promotional choice—utterly witless.)

Oct. 21: Faithless (2000, dir. Liv Ullmann, Norway/Sweden)
Liv Ullmann adapting an epic Ingmar Bergman script based on their stormy relationship? Yes, please.

Oct. 22: Adoption (1975, dir. Márta Mészáros, Hungary)
Golden Bear winner of yore.

I am going into this next handful of films just about blind, and have no particularly spiffy commentary to offer on them:

Oct. 23: Ratcatcher (1999, dir. Lynne Ramsay, U.K.)
Oct. 24: Treeless Mountain (2009, dir. So Yong Kim, South Korea)
Oct. 25: Take My Eyes (2003, dir. Icíar Bollaín, Spain)
Oct. 26: Blackboards (2000, dir. Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran)
Oct. 27: Attenberg (2010, dir. Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)
Oct. 28: Dukhtar (2014, dir. Afia Nathaniel, Pakistan)
Oct. 29: Danzón (1991, dir. Maria Novaro, Mexico)
Oct. 30: My Brilliant Career (1979, dir. Gillian Armstrong, Australia)

Oct. 31: Away From Her (2006, dir. Sarah Polley, Canada)
Hard to think of a better way to close the month than with an Alice Munro adaptation.

See you soon with my thoughts on Monsoon Wedding.

31 Days of Cinema 2.0: Women Filmmakers

Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

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The most seismic event in cinema in 2015 was not Star Wars. We all knew that The Force Awakens was going to be a glorified New Hope retread, made by Disney for an easy billion, and somehow, we were all too happy to fork over the cash and confirm the contemptible belief of Hollywood at large that the populace cares nothing for art and everything for regurgitated franchises, so why bother with art? That was all predictable. What no film buff saw coming was the death—on October 5, by apparent suicide—of Chantal Akerman, the French-Belgian daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants who broke ground in 1975, when she was 25 (almost the same age as Orson Welles circa Citizen Kane), with her minimalist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. This film is just under three and a half hours long, and it concerns itself entirely with the title character in her apartment, making meals, cleaning up, spending leisure time with her teenage son Sylvain, prostituting herself in the most drab and unsexy way possible, and doing other tasks. And somehow, it is as infinitely, compulsively watchable as the best of the early Star Wars trilogy, if not more than—and for this alone, it is an uncanny masterpiece. I’ve only seen two Akerman films to date—this and Je, Tu, Il, Elle—yet her death was as tough a blow for me as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s. I’m almost 23. In the young, creative, brazen Akerman—her brunette hair fashionably shorn off at the chin—I see a lot of myself. She is already one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.

Jeanne Dielman is often named among the first great feminist films—which Akerman considered a narrow label, stemming from the fact that female cineastes like her were (and remain) scarce, as were (are) films about women, or even about one sole woman. This may be a feminist statement by virtue of its very existence, true, and it certainly functions in a feminine register, but to imply that that is its primary significance is insulting. Ivone Margulies’ Criterion essay identifies domesticity, maternity and the duties inherent in them as the film’s primary themes. I think the film’s central theme is something more abstract—focus. Let’s be honest: most movies don’t demand your attention, much less your thought. Not the case here. There’s a reason Jeanne’s address is in the title alongside her name: her apartment is just as much a character in this film as her, and it may as well be perceived as her fellow co-protagonist. Her place of residence is latched onto her identity aesthetically as it is socially and politically. By my count, the film contains 218 takes (estimates on Cinemetrics are slightly greater) in 201 minutes, yielding an average shot length just under a minute. All of the shots are static, with zero pans, and quite a few stretch to five minutes—not as long as the typical artsy shots of Tarr, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, but still rather long, thus striking a steady balance between pacing and duration. Akerman and her great DP, Babette Mangolte, construct the interior shots so that they are often at table-height, above a seat directly across from where Jeanne may be cooking, eating, etc., dropping the spectator right into her world. Even more vitally and innovatively, all but a few of the film’s shots (and I will discuss those critical few) are rectilinear, head-on, flat-planed, never straying from the four cardinal directions—north, west, south, east. They are inscribed by the apartment’s rigid right angles and thus by its sphere of domesticity. Hence, they are extremely focused. If we focus along with the camera, by film’s end, we will have a total knowledge of the apartment’s layout, and also of Jeanne’s personality as reflected by it. Indeed, focus is Jeanne’s definitive quality—focused as she is on her daily chores. It is when her focus is distracted that the film’s conflict brews.

The film opens in medias res, as Jeanne is turning to grab some garnish (or so it looks) to add to a pot. For a couple of minutes, she prepares dinner. That’s the first shot. Second shot: we look down the apartment’s main hallway. She invites a man in, takes his coat, and guides him to her bedroom. Third shot: same angle, with a light change to indicate the time change. They exit the bedroom as clothed as they were when they walked in. Fourth shot: at the door. The man hands her some cash, says he’ll return, and exits. This is all we’re given and all we need to determine Jeanne’s profession, and where lesser filmmakers would have loaded the encounter with cynicism and detached superiority, Akerman settles for a Bressonian mix of simplicity and objectivity. Fifth shot: She moves the cash into a blue-white tureen in her dining room. Sixth shot: She resumes cooking potatoes in the kitchen. To Jeanne Dielman, prostitution is just another chore that has to be done to keep up the household—just another step in the recipe. As the opening minutes proceed, her character starts to take shape. She turns on the lights when she enters a room and turns them off when she exits it, which we can take to mean she’s frugal and doesn’t have much to pay for electricity. When she bathes, she does so thoroughly, not with troubled urgency but with casual duty—as if to say, this is part and parcel of being a courtesan—with no more grace and no less stoicism than she washes dishes in her kitchen sink. The gewgaws in her dining room cabinet are curious; there’s a dog figurine, but no dog to speak of. Akerman films most of this with zero dialogue. That is a true test of a filmmaker’s talent—to harness film’s potential by communicating purely through imagery, to an international audience. You could afford to watch this film with the subtitles off.

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The dialogue and subtitles that are there, on the contrary, provide some useful background. Jeanne is a widow; her husband has been dead for six years. She has a sister, Aunt Fernande, in Canada, who informs her by letter of her isolation (comparable, as Margulies implies, to Jeanne’s economic constraints) amidst that country’s wild blizzards. Sylvain attends a Flemish school, and is starting to develop a Flemish accent. Some background on Belgium: it’s sort of a mistake of a nation, cobbled together from leftover pieces of France and the Netherlands, and there’s been a mild linguistic apartheid between the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish throughout its history. (Not to mention, it’s been exploited for battlegrounds in too many wars. World War II is still fresh in Jeanne’s mind, as we’ll discuss later.) Sylvain’s scarf is a curious costume choice in this regard. It’s a grey scarf, with two red stripes flanking two blue stripes from a distance. If we may call white a substitute for grey, then this scarf basically puts the French and Dutch flags (same tricolor pattern, different orientations) side by side, succinctly summating Belgium’s fractured national identity, and underscoring the growing distance between him and his mother. For his age, Sylvain is very sexually naïve and has no goddamn clue about his mother’s profession. “If I were a woman,” he quips, “I could never make love with someone I wasn’t deeply in love with”—to which Jeanne deadpans, “How could you know? You’re not a woman.” Jeanne’s kin network is hence very scattered and very unfocused; one wonders if the prostitution is meant to fill the husband’s vacancy, or if it is merely a concern of Commerce—of the basic economics of making a damn living while remaining within one’s own secure domestic sphere. This push-and-pull between aesthetic/personal concerns and capitalism is just as foundational to cinema, and thus best depicted in the realm of cinema.

In aligning with the apartment’s urban geometry, Mangolte’s camera convinces the audience to reciprocate by constructing the apartment in their own minds. One of the ways the cinematography lulls us into Jeanne’s sense of routine is by initially restricting the number of angles from which each location is shot. In the film’s first half, for the most part, we only see the kitchen from two angles: east, from the doorway, pointing to the porch door; and north, across the table, towards the counter and stove. Same with the dining room: east, across the table, looking into the main hallway; and north, gazing into the living room. (I operate under the convenient assumption that the hallway points north to the bedroom.) The bedroom is seen from three angles: east and west, across the bed; and south, on the corner of the room where Jeanne gets dressed. The exceptions occur to signal either a shift in perspective or a jolt in Jeanne’s concentration, or both. Whenever we see the dining/living room from the south, for instance, it is to reflect Sylvain’s point-of-view. This first occurs when Jeanne helps Sylvain recite Baudelaire’s “The Enemy” by memory—a very gendered moment, as while Sylvain’s male privilege gives him greater access to artistic/literary leisure, Jeanne’s interactions with language are reduced to regurgitating the contents of Aunt Fernande’s letter, which serves to make Akerman’s prolix cadences and ellipses of silence even more sexually fraught. The disconnect between mother and son is strong. Jeanne instructs Sylvain twice, “Don’t read while you eat,” yet they don’t have any productive discussions during—nor after—dinner. After, Sylvain puts his textbooks on the dinner table to study only to be forced to remove them so that Jeanne can wipe the table down. Then, when Sylvain is tucked into bed (his mattress folding out from a boxy couch in the living room), as if to make up for lost time, he blurts out all his insecure feelings about sex, which his mother has neither the patience nor the stamina to respond to efficiently.

We adapt to these regimented perspectives insomuch that when—in the second half—we view familiar rooms from new orientations, the effect is jarring. It is an immense credit to Akerman and to editor Patricia Canino that by film’s end, we’d feel very cozy in this apartment, but the journey to that end is frequently disorienting. (I’d forgotten until my second viewing that the kitchen is across from, not next to, the dining room.) For one, we’re tricked into thinking that the film is divided into three chapters for three days, when it is best viewed as a two-chapter story—each half covering an evening routine, followed by a morning routine, with the encounter between Jeanne and her third john providing a climactic coda. (In a humorous touch, it is implied that Jeanne has one john assigned to each day of the week, as with her dinner meals, hence three johns in the film.) Also, the first time the camera looks west on the kitchen—i.e. towards the hall—it indicates Jeanne’s remembering that she made the rare mistake of forgetting to turn the bathroom light off. Later that night, the east-facing camera is placed uniquely on the threshold between dining and living room—Sylvain in the latter, Jeanne in the former—to presage Sylvain reminding Jeanne to turn on the radio as she does all nights. And what to make of the fact that Jeanne sleeps facing away from the bedroom door, but has sex facing towards it?! Spaces we thought we knew are given new dimensions through such montages. Jeanne Dielman is a film better experienced than written about; it contains some of the subtlest and most effective smash cuts in all of cinema.

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As you may have gleaned by now, this is a film that accumulates its momentum from the smallest possible vicissitudes—the minor irritations that distract Jeanne from and frustrate her routine, and that build up to a catastrophe. The crack in her focus begins, I think, when she is preparing for her second john and notices a hair out of place on her rounded coiffure, which she struggles to get back into place. She never really recovers from that. From that point further, she becomes lax with her apartment’s lighting, drops objects, overcooks and runs out of food, arrives at places outside of her apartment too early and too late, neglects to put the lid on her tureen full of illicit earnings (!), makes errors in her wardrobe, etc. For all his naïveté, Sylvain’s focus starts to eclipse hers; it is he who notices in one scene that she missed a button, to her veiled chagrin. The simplest way to contextualize this shift in atmosphere is to recognize, as many critics remind us, that Akerman’s mother and aunts—the models for Jeanne—were Holocaust survivors. Is Jeanne Jewish? (There has to be some way of telling whether the meals she makes in this visual cookbook of a movie are kosher.) Was she targeted for genocide and thus traumatized by WWII? Are her isolationism, her insularity and her routines constructed to stave off and shelter herself from her trauma, and to give herself a domestic sphere of sovereignty, if not power? Is her gradual loss of focus due to the inexorable return of trauma to her consciousness, or is the trauma simply filling the vacancies in her thoughts caused by her various miniature accidents? Jeanne Dielman is in that rare tradition of postwar films (Harold and Maude is another) that manage to keep their central conflict completely latent and nuanced. It is from the total abstraction of Jeanne’s prior sufferings that it gains much of its energy.

Do not read the next paragraph unless you have seen the film. You do not want this particular film’s ending spoiled.

It is in that regard that the film’s few diagonal camera angles become salient. I counted nine diagonals total, in this film of 218 shots. Two of them are on Jeanne and her first two clients as they return to the apartment’s front door post-coitus, exchange cash, and say their goodbyes. They may indicate Jeanne’s essential autonomy as a woman to decide the parameters of her sexual relations—in particular, when they end—which liberate her just slightly enough from her rigid urban confines. Three diagonals are set on a mirror image of Jeanne as she rides the elevator in her apartment building. Mirrors of course provide Jeanne a conduit of self-reflection, which foreshadows the cataclysmic decision she makes in the film’s final four shots, all of which are oblique. In the fourth-to-last shot, Jeanne removes her clothes in front of a mirror and a framed photo of her with her husband—past and present dichotomized—while off-screen, the third john coughs. The third-to-last, which shows him and her having sex on the bed, is the film’s only downward angle; Jeanne’s body is brought to orgasm but she does not appear to enjoy it. The penultimate shot, in which all the main action is viewed through said mirror, is the film’s payoff. Where her other clients left politely, Jeanne’s third man resumes reclining on the bed, perhaps expecting more. Seeing this through the mirror, Jeanne spots a pair of scissors she left on her desk next to her husband’s photo, which she earlier used to open a gift that Fernande had promised to send her in her letter. (The gift is an ugly pink shirt that does not jibe with the deep whites, yellows and blue-greens of Jeanne’s—and Akerman’s—preference.) What happens next transforms that gift into a perfectly deployed Chekhov’s gun—a deft twist in the narrative of a seemingly uneventful film: on a whim, Jeanne grabs the scissors, and fatally stabs the third john in the neck. Coming after over three hours calculated to avoid all forms of sensationalism, this simple murder produces a staggering magnitude. Jeanne’s apartment has failed to keep her safe from the oppressions and agonies of the world beyond, and to restore her much-damaged senses of focus and security, she lashes out against the intrusive force of the john. The final, five-minute shot is of her in her dining room, alone, her clothes bloodied, breathing in and out, eyes opening and closing, head lolling once or twice, listening to the outside noises of terrain and honking, recovering from her deed. (This shot is only barely jagged; pay attention to the dresser behind her.) She has the capacity, I imagine, to complete the mundane task of covering up the murder. Then again, Sylvain is more than likely about to arrive home…

How did Chantal Akerman pull this off? These three and a half hours of a woman doing chores are seriously accessible, never boring, always gripping, and paced perfectly. Much of it is still a mystery to me—even while whatever is in this film that may be called technique is about as straightforward as Mangolte’s camera. It should not go with my saying that credit is due to Delphine Seyrig, the late, legendary Lebanese-born actress who commands almost every frame of this film playing Jeanne. Her performance does not for one second rely on anything overt to seize our attention and ease the narrative’s formalist difficulty. She works entirely within Akerman’s minimalism, channeling and creating her entire character with the quietest of gestures, interacting with the household as a narrative agent in its own right, and allowing the aura of tension around her to build up in increments. Every acting choice she makes is deliberate but never forced. This is one of cinema’s greatest performances, as well as one of its best marriages of actress and director. Jan Decorte, as Sylvain, matches Seyrig in all his scenes, bringing an appropriate note of leery, pasty-faced, smug sexual anxiety to the proceedings that in effect make him an efficient Oedipal foil to his mother and her johns. (This is Decorte’s only noteworthy film role; he has done most of his work in theatre and has also been involved in Belgian politics.) Whoever did the sound design also deserves citation; all of this film’s aural cues—from the radiator hums and exterior street sounds to the baby who only cries when Jeanne is nearby—are intentional, percussive, and immaculate. All things considered, though, the true star here is and will always be Akerman. With Jeanne Dielman, she gave herself a strict experimental challenge and executed it flawlessly, with aplomb—and that is enough for a masterpiece. As much as we crave the spectacle and bombast of franchise films, I think we underestimate our capacity to appreciate when film reflects back to us our lives as we live them, with all their blunt monotony and banal distractions. This is what makes Jeanne Dielman significant. We can neither ignore nor neglect her, because we are her. Something tells me that overall, women would understand that better than men.

In memory of Chantal Akerman, and the victims of terrorism in Brussels, the Middle East, and all over.

Great Film: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles”, Cinema’s Ultimate Slow Burn

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

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The story of Fifth Business is, in the most literal sense possible, a snowball effect. In the first chapter, the narrator, Dunstable Ramsay, recalls the moment as a kid when he dodged a snowball chucked at him—with a cruel, game humor not uncommon in kids—by his friend/rival Percy Boyd Staunton, which ended up striking Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of a Baptist reverend. In the classic style of chaos theory, the whole novel, which is to say the whole of Ramsay’s life, stems very cleanly from this moment. This is how the novel was advertised to me—by one of my high school freshman year English teachers, the enigmatic Mr. Donegan, almost a decade before now when I have at last gotten around to reading it—and this is how I advertise it to you, with just the tease and as few spoilers as possible. I deeply enjoyed this read, as I was particularly affected by the social-cum-economic inequality between Ramsay and Staunton, and how it plays out ironically in light of their effect on the lives of Mary and her child, Paul. Staunton suppresses his memory of the incident and takes no responsibility for its consequences, and becomes an affluent huckster of sweets and a notable political figure in his native Ontario. Ramsay takes up the burden of devoting himself to the Dempster family and, as a direct result, pursues a modest living as a scholar of religious saints—that after losing a limb in World War One. Such is usually (not always, but usually) the case in life: the inertial go-getters disregard those whom they harm along the way, while those with a conscience only consider it moral that their accidents subsume and chemically change them. The narrative is an intellectual feast, abounding with provocative discourse on religion and faith, miracles and magic, historicism and fiction, as well as with irony and diversion. For instance: Ramsay promises not to go into too much detail on the two World Wars, when in execution, he spends a great portion of the novel discussing them and the ripples thereafter (he freakin’ got a leg blown off in the first one, after all). Robertson Davies’ weakness with female characters must be mentioned and do prevent this from being an outright masterpiece. The archetypes are familiar and tiresome: Staunton’s wife Leola is a wealth-chasing trophy; Diana Marfleet is a British nurse who exists mainly to fulfill Ramsay’s (read: Davies’) sexual fantasies after his service in the war; Ramsay’s mother is a disciplinarian shrew; and Mary Dempster is a simple mind made to suffer for her sexual proclivities. Only Liesl—the German-Swiss companion of the adult magician Paul Dempster, who calls Ramsay out for his instabilities late in the narrative—is granted any agency, and even then, the prose’s depiction of her as ugly and tragically masculine is needless. Fifth Business is the first volume in Davies’ Deptford trilogy; I hope to read the other two, and I hope the women of those tomes are more authentic.

Grade: A-

52 Weeks of Literature, Week Eight: “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”

It opens with a lady in her room. We may not know it, but she is also the writer and director of this film, Chantal Akerman. She writes a script—maybe an epistolary one—and her voiceover narrates it. Often, she writes down stage directions in the past tense and then follows them, as if all her actions were preordained, already past—which, in the sense of the recorded film, they kind of are. Some of those directions are separated by days in terms of what we hear, seconds in terms of what we see, which means that one minutes-long shot may cover hours. Time here answers more to the functions of memory than to forward chronology, and not all that is seen is reliable. Akerman’s room begins as adequately furnished; in a few minutes, all there is in it is a mattress. She eats sugar out of a paper bag with a spoon, which I daresay would be very plausible in Belgium (and France, and Louisiana, etc.) if there were beignets in there, too. She takes off her clothes, lies on the mattress and drapes her clothes over herself. Is she naked or wearing clothes? Is she presentable? How can we be trusted to answer these questions when all we’re given to observe this woman is two-dimensional image and film?

These are the types of facts, inquiries and ambiguities that are at the center of Je, Tu, Il, Elle, a brief film that contributes to Akerman’s minimalist body of work, of which the most famous entry is the epic, near-perfect Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You have to wrestle with the nuances while watching this. Akerman’s technique is to lull you with long takes and surprise you out of your stupor with environmental shifts that start out small and get bigger. It sounds ludicrous and pretentious, but it is executed without flaw every time. Every turn of the mattress, every crinkle of the sugar bag, every change of lighting and every outdoor noise hold momentum. Even such simple revelations as a sink and a glass sliding door leading outside produce great jolts. Much of her technique torques around a scant use of close-ups and a dependence on wide angles. It is standard for a scene to begin with wide establishing shots and close in on the characters from there, but Akerman remains firmly in the wide perspective, and this permits her to emphasize how different one same room may look from a distinct standing position. The effect is disorienting, labyrinthine. Her camera looks at two walls for a long time, so when it looks at the other two walls to reveal what’s there, you feel it. And when she leaves the room—after half an hour of an under-ninety-minute film—and is next found standing by an elevated highway trying to thumb a ride, you realized that you’ve been played. You were just about ready to spend the entire film in that room, with just Akerman.

Je, Tu, Il, Elle is about the economics of art. Early in life, I was convinced that life could imitate art—that life could be free as art, that my antagonists could be impelled to see the errors of their ways with long and tenacious monologues, that the good guys always won in the end and had to win. Fuck, was I wrong, chiefly on the first point: art has myriad larger social, political and economic concerns nipping at its buds. Most artists starting out, for one, are poor—and Akerman, who was towards the beginning of her career when she made this (in 1976), is honest and vulnerable, perhaps even too much so, about her own destitution. Look at how she writes by longhand and lays each page of her script out on the floor side by side, tacking them down with some sticky substance. I can tell you as a writer that this is authentic. Everything in the film—the grainy B&W, the set designs, the actors’ acting and their bodies—is as stripped down as the title. No more is needed, really. Entire worlds are contained in that quartet of pronouns. People who are only invigorated by Hollywood melodrama are pathetic; this is a thousand times more riveting and more realistic. Using just herself and one room, Akerman demonstrates the difficulty of being an artist, creating genuine art in a Commerce-driven world and dealing with the solitude and dearth of publicity that comes on top of all that.

And that’s just the film’s first third. The rest of the film concerns her joyride with a sexually dubious truck driver (Niels Arestrup, the great French actor whom you may know from A Prophet and War Horse) and her steamy reunion with an ex-lesbian girlfriend (Claire Wauthion), when all manners of pent-up tension are at last released. Is this the film she was scripting in her room, which she is now actively creating and joining? Likely so. The takes here are longer. In one static shot in a restaurant, Akerman and Arestrup eat dinner while watching an American gangster movie on a TV off-screen. We hear the audio from it, in English, and the music and commercial excitement from it is enough to give us a break from the film’s formal rigors. Yet, in making the audience watch an audience of a genre picture, Akerman dares us to face the banality of most cinema, which we can and do frequently consume without concentration, while eating and multi-tasking and often looking away (as the director forces us to do here, placing the TV off-screen)—activities that are ill-advised while watching this particular film. There are some more arbitrary English-language media by way of the truck driver’s radio, and a couple more mundane barroom scenes. You realize what a fascinating time and place ‘70s Belgium/France was, until you realize that you don’t know where we are; it might be Britain, America, Québec. Such is the power of Akerman’s delocalization and destabilization. She brings the driver to orgasm (five minutes, one take). The driver discusses his vast sex life with her (ten minutes, one take). She meets with her ex, and after some Nutella sandwiches, they disrobe and move to the bed for an intense orgy, their bodies slamming against and pressing into each other like rubber before cunnilingus is exchanged (fifteen minutes, three takes). Not a second of this is boring.

Akerman’s portrayal of gender is curious. The masculine (Arestrup) is motional, clothed, talkative, out in the open but powerful; the feminine (her and Wauthion) is static, naked, introspective, sheltered yet—as aforesaid—vulnerable. This parallels the Last Tango in Paris of just a few years prior, and that’s a film of wanton testosterone. Is this another sign of Akerman’s humility? I don’t think so. Another strategy she uses is to only have one person or voice talking during each shot. If there are two people there, one is talking/active, and the other is listening/silent/passive. Even if these shots are meant to be in medias res—which is to say, in the middle of a mutual, two-way, social dialogue—this structure creates and implies a solipsism inherent in all monologue and hence all talk. In waxing rhapsodic, the driver exposes his narcissism, whereas the ex-girlfriend speaks little and the protagonist is virtually only heard in voiceover, in thoughts or in writing. Only through the body and through imbuing it with motion, agency, participation in life and action qua art, Akerman might be saying, can we achieve true, honest communication—and this is part of what makes the third-act Sapphic sex so refreshing. (We need much more female-mediated depictions of sex like this.) Her film only blossoms when her writing/thinking/speaking evolves into movement and action, which fosters conflict, narrative and—ultimately—preserved cinema. She throws all care to the wind and makes her movie and tells her story, in spite of—and because of—her barren poverty. Akerman is fast becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. She is an expert at using the shot to adapt, to relax, to hypnotize viewers; at using the montage to shock; and at crafting subtle, layered, precise, great performances. Je, Tu, Il, Elle testifies to that. It is equally challenging and rewarding; it is masterful.

Grade: A+

The Rest of the Week: Once again, my schedule bedevils me! Today was yet another busy day, which limited me to another shorter film, Close-up. The review on that could not come tonight, as this film was provocative enough to deserve its own post, so Close-up will be covered in depth tomorrow. I should be back on my preplanned schedule after this:
Tomorrow: Soldier of Orange.
Monday: A Woman Under the Influence.
Tuesday: Open Your Eyes.

31 Days of Cinema, Day Ten: “Je, Tu, Il, Elle”